NASCAR Drivers Who Will Bounce Back in 2014 After Disappointing Seasons

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2014

NASCAR Drivers Who Will Bounce Back in 2014 After Disappointing Seasons

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    Two guys who hope to be splashing a lot of champagne in their respective comebacks in 2014 are Brad Keselowski (left) and Tony Stewart.
    Two guys who hope to be splashing a lot of champagne in their respective comebacks in 2014 are Brad Keselowski (left) and Tony Stewart.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Major League Baseball isn't the only sport that has what fans have long called its hot stove league, where fans spend the offseason posturing and predicting which players and teams will have big comeback years in the upcoming new season.

    NASCAR fans are cut from the same cloth. If their favorite driver has a mediocre to terrible season, many typically spend the offseason telling everyone who will listen why their driver is going to have a big comeback year in the new season.

    There were several drivers who had less than satisfying performances in the 2013 season. For some, it was frustration built upon frustration. For others, they likely couldn't wait for the season to end so they could ultimately put it in their rear-view mirror and forget the season that was.

    With less than four weeks remaining until the 2014 season-opening Daytona 500, five drivers in particular will start the new campaign with lots of attention and scrutiny on whether they indeed will be able to rebound and go from a mediocre 2013 to a competitive 2014.

    Let's take a look at how those five drivers will likely fare.

Brad Keselowski

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    It's likely no other driver has a bigger chip on his shoulder coming into 2014 to avenge what happened in 2013 than Brad Keselowski.

    After his spectacular run to his first career Sprint Cup championship—and also the first for storied team owner Roger Penske—in 2012, Keselowski started off strong in 2013, only to fall apart in the middle third of the season.

    By the time he tried to get his train back on the right track, it was too late, and Keselowski wound up missing the Chase and embarrassingly being unable to defend the championship he fought so hard to win the year before.

    We can easily see Keselowski going for the jugular right from the opening race. If he can stay out of wrecks, Keselowski could start the season in great form, potentially even having a chance of adding his first Daytona 500 win to his 2012 Cup title.

    Who knows, if he wins at Daytona, it could potentially not only be a springboard to a comeback, but it could also be the start of his road to championship No. 2 nine months later.

    Prediction: Keselowski finishes in the top seven by season's end.

AJ Allmendinger

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    AJ Allmendinger is back, and now he will show what being back as a full-time Sprint Cup racer means.

    After being suspended by NASCAR in mid-2012 for violating the sanctioning body's substance-abuse policy, Allmendinger did everything by the book to get reinstated—and was in a very quick three-plus months.

    Since then, he's been a man on a mission, taking rides wherever he could find them last year, racking up a couple of Nationwide Series wins and a seventh-place finish at the Indianapolis 500.

    Now entering his first full Sprint Cup season since 2011, and with a new team in JTG Daugherty, Allmendinger is a changed man—and for the better.

    And while JTG-D is a single car operation, Allmendinger has the kind of talent that could take the team to unprecedented heights, potentially even mirroring what Kurt Busch did last season, taking Furniture Row Racing and making it the first single-car team in NASCAR history to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    JTG-D will also switch from Toyotas to Chevrolets provided by Richard Childress Racing in 2014, and that should result in a big performance boost.

    Prediction: Allmendinger finishes in the top 20 and has an outside shot to make the Chase if it is potentially expanded to a 16-car field, which is expected to be announced by NASCAR later this week.

Brian Vickers

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    There's no need to question Brian Vickers' talent. He went out in a part-time ride last season and won at New Hampshire. The guy is a racer—and a winner.

    But last season, in particular the waning weeks of the 2013 campaign, were marred by yet another health scare suffered by Vickers, who in the past has had a recurring instance of blood-related illnesses.

    He now has a full-time ride for Michael Waltrip Racing in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014, and again, there's no reason to doubt what he can do inside a race car.

    But his health is still the big, evil gorilla in the little room. Fans are likely still going to be concerned whether Vickers can sustain the rigors of the full 36-race season.

    For Vickers, perhaps the best medicine is not the kind he swallows, but rather the kind that comes with winning races and being competitive. If he can do that in 2014, his health may not be an issue whatsoever.

    Prediction: MWR is still reeling from the embarrassment, suspensions and heavy fines related to trying to influence the outcome of the final pre-Chase qualifying race at Richmond last September. Vickers, who was somewhat of an innocent bystander in that whole mess, will likely still be under scrutiny nonetheless. And if that happens, will there be a carryover effect to his team and the entire organization? Bottom line, if Vickers' health remains good, he potentially not only can win a race or two, but he may also even sneak into what could be an expanded Chase field. Likely finish: as high as ninth, maybe eighth.

Tony Stewart

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Tony Stewart is back. He's still a bit tentative and a little slow getting around, but it's to be expected considering the serious nature of the wreck he had in a sprint car in a race in Iowa early last August. That wreck was not only the worst in Stewart's career, but it also cost him the final 15 weeks of the Sprint Cup season.

    Much like Keselowski, Stewart likely has something to prove to his fans, opposing teams and the NASCAR world as a whole—and to himself, to an extent. Namely, that he still has what it takes and will go all-out to win a fourth career Cup championship.

    Stewart looked good on Monday in Charlotte for the opening of the annual four-day NASCAR media tour. He was in good spirits, joshed good-naturedly with the media and claimed there's no fear in getting back into the race car and going fast—even with all of the propensity for risk in the season-opening Daytona 500 and its notorious litany of multi-car wrecks.

    Still, racing is what Stewart does, plain and simple. Taking him out of the race car would be like saying all of the work, rehab and recovery from his injury wasn't worth it.

    And the best medicine, much like Vickers, is for Stewart to prove right away in Daytona that he hasn't lost a step or a few miles per hour.

    Prediction: Stewart finishes in the top 10 in the Daytona 500 and goes on to not only make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but also potentially wind up being one of the four likely finalists to duke it out for the Cup championship in the season finale at Homestead in mid-November.

Denny Hamlin

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Winning the season-ending race at Homestead put a shiny finish on what had been an otherwise very ugly season in 2013 for Denny Hamlin.

    Like former teammate Tony Stewart, Hamlin suffered the worst injury of his career when he incurred a fractured vertebrae after a wicked crash into a retaining wall at Auto Club Speedway last spring. The wreck and resulting physical treatment caused Hamlin to miss four races, and he likely spent the rest of the season after he returned in various levels of pain (even though he denied such).

    Hamlin proved he can still win with his achievement at Homestead. What better way to end a bad season and lead into a new season with momentum and, at the very least, bragging rights.

    Hamlin is one of the most emotionally driven drivers in the series. He wears those same emotions on his sleeves, he lets other drivers get under his skin (he was trying to get back at Joey Logano at the time of his crash at Fontana), and sometimes he tries to be too macho for his own good.

    Hopefully he's learned some things from his wreck and resulting recovery and comeback. If all goes well, Hamlin will return with the same level of talent he's always had, but hopefully he also returns with more patience and tolerance—rather than acting like a bull in a china shop at times on a racetrack.

    Prediction: Hamlin will unquestionably make the Chase for the Sprint Cup—provided he doesn't get injured again (hey, it IS a possibility that has to be raised, isn't it?). If Hamlin can return to the same kind of form he showed in several previous years, including 2010 and 2012, he could go a long way in 2014. Not only do we see him making the Chase, but he also likely could finish as high as top five at season's end.

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